There's always so much happening in the New York area that I often learn about events only after they've happened. Until I received an email from my friend, artist and cultural warrior Ella Turenne, I hadn't realized that Fresh Fruit: The Fourth International Festival of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender Arts and Culture was underway at a number of venues in lower Manhattan. The festival, comprising visual art exhibits, musical, dance and theater performances, staged readings, and films, began on July 10 and runs through this upcoming Sunday.
Ella was performing in Jesse Cameron Alick's play Come Back to Me, a Smokin Word Production, at the Collective Unconscious Theatre on Church Street. Claudia Alick directed it. One of my immediate thoughts at the end of the play was how wonderful it was to hear a writer trying to think through thematic complexities, and to see him try to dramatize them, even if I didn't think that the heavy philosophizing always worked. Come Back to Me tells the story of three siblings, a sister, Isis (Kyana Brindle) and two brothers, the older Jude (Jas Anderson) and Ryokan (Marcus D. Harvey), who've reached a familial impasse, in part because of the brothers' dogmatic adherence to their religious beliefs. Jude is a devout Christian, while Ryokan is a Zen Buddhist, and Alick weaves stories, quotations and allusions from religious texts throughout the work, sometimes very skillfully. Isis serves as mediating link between them, striving to reconcile them after a five-year rift; she understands their limitations, and at one point suggests that their focused hardheadedness equals the literal psychological problems their mother has endured, though the analogy stretched too far, or at least wasn't well grounded. What she is willing to give them is what they badly crave, especially Ryokan, from each other, but are too proud, too obstinant, too wounded, too wedded to their ideological fixations to share: unconditional love. That both are ill presses the issue, leading to an ending I found too neat and almost pat; why couldn't the narrative end with the same sort of complexity the play offered throughout?
In general, Alick's sharp and frequently humorous writing kept me as a viewer on my toes. Eschewing naturalism or straighforward realism, he drew from the toolkit of drama's history to knit together a lively text that was often unpredictable. Some of these techniques included actors announcing the scene titles to a Wilderesque moment where Turenne and Brindle, representing the citizenry of Sodom and Gomorrah, start posing questions of the audience, to choreopoem-style recitations in unison. Often the monologues were fresh and provocative, but sometimes they reach for more than they could truly handle, and in a few cases the monologues were simply boring. The interruptions of the forward-moving text were sometimes effective, sometimes less so, but usually jarring--and I think this is what the author wanted, to shake us out of our usual ways of thinking. Alick often dared to push his thoughts beyond conventions, which made me want to see the play again in order to catch some of what I know I missed, and to look out for more of his future work.
The staging was at times ingenious, and the use of the stage space was one of the best aspects of the play. Using a minimum of props, the actors constantly reformatted the set, sometimes to moving effect. What they were able to accomplish with a single black bedsheet in particular impressed. The acting was very good; all of the actors convincingly inhabited their parts, showing skill with timing and sometimes tricky dialogues and monologues. One area that they really excelled in was their ability to make what could have been an inert device, chatting on the telephone, which played a central role in the narrative, frequently come alive. If even a few of the other events on the program approach this one in terms of its ambition and execution, this year's festival will definitely be a success.
Jen (Ella Turenne) and Ryokan (Marcus D. Harvey)
Turenne and Harvey
Jude (Jas Anderson) and Jill (Sameera Luqmaan-Harris)
Turenne, Harvey, Kyana Brindle, Luqmaan-Harris, and Anderson
Harvey, Brindle and Anderson